Saturday, 6 February 2010

Through global lenses

February snow on the ground in Finland and in the background quite a mismatch of a business idea. Possibly an attempt at a global feel with the stereotypical Aussie icons plus the name Sydney, although I suspect this place has nothing to do with Australia otherwise. After all, they serve Italian pizza and Turkish kebabs, washed down with, whatever else than the epitome of globalization - American coca cola.

This is very much the reality in my country, where using English or global references are considered a sign of success. I can well understand the backlash from many Finns, who become very protective towards anything domestic and want to support nothing but Finnishness and Finnish products, language included.

Many of my high school students also feel this way. Although, on the surface, they love travelling, have dreams of spending some of their lives abroad, and seem to prefer many international brands and ideas, when it comes to learning English, their defenses zoom up and they strongly cling to their right to speak and use Finglish - a variant of the global lingua franca with a strong Finnish accent. And, of course, they are welcome to do so. The only problem may be that (as I have blogged before) they may be unnecessarily misunderstood among native English speakers, wrongly considered a little bit dumb perhaps, and not get out of communicative situations what they would like. I wonder if it's all to do with a certain inferiority complex we may, sometimes unconsciously, suffer from. Native English speakers have a clear advantage compared to us, and we find it hard to come to terms with it, especially if we have worked hard for years, and reached a fairly good level in English.

The photo bringing Finland, Australia and America together is very relevant for me right now, as I am just about to embark on a novel pilot project with two teachers on opposite sides of the world, but both in English-speaking countries - one in Australia and the other one in the States. We are going to run a photo sharing project with our students for 8 weeks, in which students upload a weekly photo assignment with a written description in our Flickr group and comment on other students' contributions. It will be very interesting to see how it will all work out, particularly from the language point of view. How will my students feel conversing with native English speakers, and will they be able to be sensitive enough not to label people based only on their limited EFL skills. A lot of intercultural learning opportunities for all participants, I feel.

I must say I am in awe at the efficiency, enthusiasm and initiative my two newly-met foreign colleagues have demonstrated! Setting this project up in such a short time (only about a month!) is potent evidence at the power of online teacher networks for the benefit of student learning.

Map photo by colemama on Flickr

Friday, 5 February 2010

How to assess learning - that is today's burning question

At the start of a new exam week, assessment is on my mind again. It seems that it is being reviewed and discussed in Finland as well as abroad. Just yesterday I received the following comment from Susan van Gelder in Montreal:
There is a lot of talk here about assessment of learning and assessment for learning. In the latter the student also plays a role in assessment, reflecting on their learning, their strategies and setting goals.
And then today, looking through some of the Finnish educators' social networking sites, I came across exactly the same topic. Referring to my previous thoughts about standard assessment in Finnish high schools, I welcome all these ideas about focusing more on self-reflection, peer assessment and the role of assessment as a means to enhance learning. It's a clich├ęd statement that assessment guides what is learned. So it would make sense to assess what is worth learning, wouldn't it?

Another point that keeps coming up in connection with assessment is the use (or rather the absence!) of new technology for assessment purposes. In my 365 photo blog, I shortly touched on this topic inspired by the classroom reality during exams. We don't use technology in exams, period. It's the old paper and pencil method. For that exam photo I received an interesting comment from Marie Coleman, in Lorenzo Walker Technical High School, in Naples, Florida:
...most of our high school students exams are provided online, so laptops do replace the traditional paper and pen!

I guess I'm not convinced that the written exam is a way to assess learning - what about projects, multimedia, authentic assessment? Perhaps that is too unrealistic or unwieldy, but that is the way I would prefer to see the focus with or without technology (i.e., technology itself is not the focal point, but will likely be of use due to its ubiquity!).
On second thoughts then, I realized that we do use something new -

- these wireless headphones for the listening comprehension tests in foreign languages. But as you can see, it's the old bubble sheets for the answers. The headphones don't really offer anything new - they are just a crutch, and actually make the situation totally unauthentic - as do the structure and content of these tests and the multiple choice questions. Nothing new under the sun in the field of school assessment. Even I succumbed to the old testing format yet again, despite all my good intentions. The students did do portfolio work throughout the course, and part of the exam was their own self-assessment on this work, but that's as far as my innovation has reached.

I do agree with Marie, and so many others, that it is not the technology per se that is going to revolutionize (or even slightly improve) assessment, and education in general. Clearly, assessment needs much more time and focused and collaborative faculty planning.